Cancer affects approximately one in every three people in the UK today, and there’s a large chance that you or someone you know has suffered from cancer at some point in the past. For those that are in the process of diagnosis, treatment and coming to terms with the illness, there are places that offer invaluable help and support – and the network of Maggie’s Centres across Britain aim to provide this with some of the best architecture that Britain has to offer.
The brainchild of Maggie Keswick Jencks, herself a writer, painter and landscape designer and battling against breast cancer, the Maggie’s Centres were born from her belief that ‘in general hospitals are not patient-friendly’. After experiences of hospital environments that were less than supportive, with ‘overhead (sometimes even neon) lighting, interior spaces with no views out and miserable seating against the walls’, meaning that ‘patients who arrive relatively hopeful soon start to wilt’, Maggie began to explore the idea of a space where people could go for help and advice, for tea and a chat, or simply for a quiet space to think. Her ideas included tiny details to help people through the trauma of cancer, including toilets that are private enough to cry in, unlike standard rows of public toilets with gaps at the top and bottom of the doors, entrance halls that ensure that people who are feeling low or scared are not intimidated but feel welcomed, or a kitchen with a dining table large enough to sit around and talk. From this came the brief for the first Maggie’s Centre, built in the grounds of the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh in a converted stable block, spotted by Maggie during her treatment process at the hospital. Designed by Richard Murphy, the new Centre aimed to become the antithesis to sterile and depressing hospital environments, creating a light and airy domestic space in which people could gather, share stories, receive counseling or partake in group exercises such as yoga or beauty therapy.
Maggie’s Centre, Edinburgh: photos by Richard Murphy Architects
Sadly, although the building was completed in 1996, Maggie never saw the finished product as she died in July 1995. Her spirit and philosophy, however, can be seen in the beautiful conversion of the stable block, the rooms with sliding doors to allow privacy or open space as needed, and the garden that was designed to feel like an extension of the kitchen space in summer months and allow a few minutes’ quiet contemplation within the caring space of the Centre. The Edinburgh Centre proved so popular that not only did it win the Sterling Prize in 1997, it also needed an extension – which, in 1999, it received, adding a larger kitchen, small room for one-to-one advice and a large sitting room to its facilities.
Following the success of the Edinburgh Centre, the Glasgow Centre was completed in 2002 with the aid of an appeal by Glasgow Evening Times, who raised £500,000 to match the funding provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Scotland. The design by David Page, of Page/Park Architects, converted a former gatehouse lodge of the University of Glasgow into a warm and modern Centre, incorporating a roof-height atrium to maximise feelings of space and light.
Maggie’s Centre, Glasgow: photos by markandlaura (left) and Maggie’s Centres (right)
A further six centres around Britain have since been completed, from Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ flamboyantly modernist creation at Charing Cross Hospital in London, to Zaha Hadid’s architectural ‘hug’ in Fife. Maggie’s close friend Frank Gehry has also designed for the charity, describing how she appeared to him in a dream and told him to keep his design simple for the users of the building. The result is a minimalist white tower, with wings on either side decorated with a dancing aluminium roof, combining dignity and a sense of fun. All of the centres have conformed to the Maggie’s architectural brief, which specifies not only the facilities that each centre must provide, but also the spirit of the project, stating that ‘we want the building to make you feel, as Maggie made you feel when you had spent time with her, more buoyant, more optimistic, that life was more ‘interesting’ when you left the room than when you walked into’. As Maggie wrote in her 1995 publication, A View from the Front Line, ‘Above all, what matters is not to lose the joy of living in the fear of dying’. It is this ethos and this support that has made the Maggie’s Centre so successful, and the architecture that has been produced as a result is truly inspiring to all of us. A further three centres are currently being planned.